Is Hector Ambriz a Closer Candidate in 2013?


Hector Ambriz is a perfect example of a player who finds success on a team like the Astros.  He is a 28-year old former prospect who is coming off of a major surgery, in this case Tommy John surgery, looking to resurrect a career that barely got off the ground.

Hector Ambriz (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

Ambriz had surgery in 2010, missed all of 2011, and was actually pitching well for the Indians AAA team, prior to his midseason release. A starter prior to his injury, Ambriz was drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Diamondbacks. At this point in his career Ambriz seems to have settled into a relief role. In 20 games prior to his release Ambriz had a 3.55 ERA which he then followed up with a 3.33 ERA for the Astros in AAA prior to his call up.  Once in the big leagues Ambriz appeared in 18 games out of the bullpen pitching 19.1 innings and recording a 4.19 ERA with 22 strikeouts.

In those 18 appearances Ambriz certainly showed some flashes that excited Astros fans as he was used in some critical situations also recording 3 holds.  But what does this mean for 2013?  Should Ambriz be considered in the discussion for closer or is he just a set up man?  Let’s take a look at three statistics to see if we can find our answer.

  • 10.24 K/9.  In his previous life Ambriz was not an elite strikeout pitcher, so is this an anomaly or a new trend?  Prior to his injury Ambriz was a starting pitcher therefore allowing the argument that he attacked hitters differently than as a relief pitcher.  However, as a reliever in the minor leagues last season in 57.1 innings he only struck out 43 batters which seems to be what you should expect from him going forward.  Per the pitch velocity data on FanGraphs, Ambriz did not really gain any speed on his fastball post injury compared to his time in the major leagues with Cleveland in 2010 (93 mph to 93.7) to cause the increase in strikeouts.  Until I see more from Ambriz, I am hard pressed to expect him to strike out more than a batter an inning.
  • 5.12 BB/9.  For as good as Ambriz was at striking batters out, he walked them at an alarmingly high rate.  Of the 324 pitches he threw, only 190 were strikes compared to 130 balls.  That is too close of a margin and walks can easily and quickly get a reliever in trouble.  Considering that he held hitters to a .200 batting average against, there is no reason for him to have a 4.19 ERA, but that is courtesy of the 11 free passes he gave up in 19.1 innings.  Also, if it were not for his good fortune of having a 66.7% strand rate, the damage could have been much worse.
  • 48.8% Ground Ball rate.  This is what bailed out Ambriz when he got into trouble.  He showed the ability to keep the ball on the ground and he managed not to give up a home run in the big leagues last season.  Keeping the ball on the ground is a good trait for any pitcher to have, especially relievers, but that is not enough to make someone a closer.

Ambriz certainly impressed at times last season, and while he could become a vital part in the Astros bullpen, it does not look like he is closer material.  Although not every closer is a flamethrower and strikeout artist, you would like to see your closer be a little more dominant and have a little better control.  More importantly the Astros actually have other options that are more equipped to close this season.  Veteran Jose Veras has the skill set and experience at the back end of bullpens while Josh Fields has the minor league pedigree.  Also, you cannot count out young stud Jarred Cosart and the mainstay of the bullpen, Wesley Wright.  The bullpen has the potential to be a strength for the Astros if they can sort out the roles for everybody, but it looks like Ambriz’s role is in the 6th or 7th inning.